Former US President Donald Trump's historic criminal case on felony charges of mishandling classified documents is set to unfold in Florida and will at least initially be overseen by a federal judge who issued rulings favourable to him last year and expressed repeated scepticism of Justice Department positions.
The assignment of US District Judge Aileen Cannon, confirmed on Friday by a person familiar with the development, is a rare bit of positive news for Trump in the face of an indictment with several criminal charges that carry the prospect of a years-long prison sentence.
Cannon was broadly criticised last year for granting the Trump legal team's request for a special master to conduct an independent review of the hundreds of classified documents seized from his Florida property last year. The move, which temporarily halted core aspects of the Justice Department's investigative work, was overturned months later by a three-judge panel of a federal appeals court.
Trump appoints a new lawyer to defend him
Meanwhile, on Friday, Trump announced a shakeup of his legal team, saying the case going forward would be handled by Todd Blanche, a lawyer representing him in a separate prosecution in New York, and not by James Trusty and John Rowley, two lawyers who had worked the classified documents case for months.
The Justice Department was expected before Tuesday to make public an indictment ahead of a historic court appearance next week in the midst of a 2024 presidential campaign punctuated by criminal prosecutions in multiple states.
Trump's indictment carries unmistakably grave legal consequences, including the possibility of prison if he's convicted. But it also has enormous political implications, potentially upending a Republican presidential primary that Trump had been dominating and testing anew the willingness of Grand Old Party voters and party leaders to stick with a now twice-indicted candidate who could face still more charges. And it sets the stage for a sensational trial centred on claims that a man once entrusted to safeguard the nation's most closely-guarded secrets willfully, and illegally, hoarded sensitive national security information after leaving office.
The Justice Department did not immediately confirm the indictment publicly. But two people familiar with the situation who were not authorised to discuss it publicly said that the indictment included seven criminal charges. One of those people said Trump's lawyers were contacted by prosecutors shortly before he announced Thursday on his Truth Social platform that he had been indicted.
Trump claims he is innocent
Within minutes of his announcement, Trump began fundraising off it for his presidential campaign. He declared his innocence in a video and repeated his familiar refrain that the investigation is a “witch hunt.” He said he was due in court Tuesday afternoon in Miami, where a federal grand jury had been hearing testimony as recently as this week.
The case adds to deepening legal jeopardy for Trump, who has already been indicted in New York and faces additional investigations in Washington and Atlanta that also could lead to criminal charges.
But among the various investigations he has faced, legal experts — as well as Trump's own aides — had long seen the Mar-a-Lago probe as the most perilous threat and the one most ripe for prosecution.
Charges against Trump
Campaign aides had been bracing for the fallout since Trump's attorneys were notified that he was the target of the investigation, assuming it was not a matter of if charges would be brought, but when. Appearing Thursday night on CNN, Trusty said the indictment includes charges of willful retention of national defence information — a crime under the Espionage Act, which regulates the handling of government secrets — obstruction, false statements and conspiracy.
The case is a milestone for a Justice Department that had investigated Trump for years — as president and private citizen — but had never before charged him with a crime. The most notable investigation was an earlier special counsel probe into ties between his 2016 campaign and Russia, but prosecutors in that probe cited Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president.
Once he left office, though, he lost that protection.
The inquiry took a major step forward last November when Attorney General Merrick Garland, a soft-spoken former federal judge who has long stated that no one person should be regarded as above the law, appointed Jack Smith, a war crimes prosecutor with an aggressive, hard-charging reputation to lead both the documents probe as well as a separate investigation into efforts to subvert the 2020 election.
The indictment arises from a monthslong investigation into whether Trump broke the law by holding onto hundreds of documents marked classified at his Palm Beach property, Mar-a-Lago, and whether Trump took steps to obstruct the government's efforts to recover the records.
Prosecutors have said that Trump took roughly 300 classified documents to Mar-a-Lago after leaving the White House, including some 100 that were seized by the FBI last August in a search of the home that underscored the gravity of the Justice Department's investigation. Trump has repeatedly insisted that he was entitled to keep the classified documents when he left the White House, and has also claimed without evidence that he had declassified them.
Court records unsealed last year showed federal investigators believed they had probable cause that multiple crimes had been committed, including the retention of national defence information, destruction of government records and obstruction. Since then, the Justice Department has amassed additional evidence and secured grand jury testimony from people close to Trump, including his own lawyers. The statutes governing the handling of classified records and obstruction are felonies that could carry years in prison in the event of a conviction.
Trump using legal troubles to his political advantage
Even so, it remains unclear how much it will damage Trump's standing given that his first indictment generated millions of dollars in contributions from angry supporters and didn't weaken him in the polls.
The former president has long sought to use his legal troubles to his political advantage, complaining on social media and at public events that the cases are being driven by Democratic prosecutors out to hurt his 2024 election campaign.
He is likely to rely on that playbook again, reviving his longstanding claims that the Justice Department — which, during his presidency, investigated whether his 2016 campaign had colluded with Russia — is somehow weaponised against him. Trump's legal troubles extend beyond the New York indictment and classified documents case.
Smith is separately investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.And the district attorney in Georgia's Fulton County is investigating Trump over alleged efforts to subvert the 2020 election in that state. Signs had mounted for weeks that an indictment was near, including a Monday meeting between Trump's lawyers and Justice Department officials.
His lawyers had also recently been notified that he was the target of the investigation, the clearest sign yet that an indictment was looming. Though the bulk of the investigative work had been handled in Washington, with a grand jury meeting there for months, it recently emerged that prosecutors were presenting evidence before a separate panel in Florida, where many of the alleged acts of obstruction scrutinized by prosecutors took place.
The Justice Department has said Trump repeatedly resisted efforts by the National Archives and Records Administration to get the documents back.
(With inputs from agency)